A tree falls in the forest

I saw a homeless man sitting on in the park on my way to school the other day. In Seattle this isn’t really an unusual occurrence. Homeless people are everywhere, and I usually don’t take too much note of them, but this one in particular caught my attention. Nothing about him was particularly remarkable. He was clearly drunk, and seemed lost, or as lost as a person can be when they have nowhere to go. He looked no different than the hundreds of other bums that littered the streets of my city. But as I walked past him, I took a second to look at him. Something about his posture seemed elegant, almost dignified. It was hard to tell through the layers of filth and tattered clothing, but it seemed to me like this man was once a somebody.  How he ended up drunk and sleeping in public parks, I’ll never know.

And then I did something I’d normally never do: I walked up to him and introduced myself. He didn’t seem to hear me at first, leaving me standing there looking like an idiot, but after a few seconds, he looked up at me. And then I saw something remarkable. For a split second, the drunken haze seemed to lift from his eyes.  He seemed to have a moment of clarity, like he was seeing the world for the first time.

“How did I get here?” He asked me.

“I don’t know”

And then, just as quickly as it came, the moment passed, and he was staring blankly out into the distance again. After that, I hurried off, giving the encounter little thought. I was going to be late for school.

 The End.

The man probably died within the next few years. Sleeping half naked in parks and spending every waking hour drunk doesn’t usually help prolong your life; homeless people tend not to live very long. In any case, I didn’t bother to give it much thought. Like I said, incidents like this aren’t uncommon in most major cities. These people are everywhere, and for the most part, they go ignored. Our stories intersected, and then went their separate ways, his ended shortly afterwards. And as far as I was concerned, that was it.

            But it wasn’t it for him. They say that when you die, time slows down and your life flashes before your eyes, and I have to wonder what flashed in his mind in his final moments. Death is an adventure in and of itself, isn’t it? I wonder if, in that brief moment when he realized where he was, he saw where he needed to go. I’ll never know.

When people talk about trees falling in the forest and no one being around to hear them, I often wonder if they really understand breadth of what that phrase is saying.  As English novelist C.S. Lewis said, “At every tick of the clock, in every inhabited part of the world, an unimaginable richness and variety of “history” falls off the world into total oblivion.” How insane is that?

Think of the famous Hubble Deep Field Image taken in 1995. I read somewhere that there are ~10,000 galaxies in that photo, and yet, more than 90% of the universe is empty space. And that picture only covers one thirteen-millionth of the night sky. That’s not even a fraction that we can realistically visualize. If we took another picture slightly to the left of that one, we’d be looking at another ~10,000 galaxies.

Now according to Big Bang cosmology, the observable universe consists of the galaxies that we can only observe from, because light from those objects has had time to reach us since the Big Bang. With each passing year, as technology improves (and more light is able to reach us), we can see a little bit deeper into space. One theory estimates that if our observable universe (which is already mind-bogglingly large) was the size of a quarter, the universe beyond our vision us would be about the size of the Earth.

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image took 400 orbits and 800 exposures to take. There are over ten thousand visible galaxies in it. It’s impossibly big, and yet, in a cosmic context, it doesn’t even register on the radar. That is ridiculous. Think of all of the grand celestial miracles that happen daily, the creation and destruction of planets, suns, entire galaxies being sucked into impossibly massive black holes, going completely unnoticed; as if they never happened at all.

Even on our own Earth, in the darkest parts of our oceans or hidden deep in our rainforests, there are entire ecosystems that we’ve never discovered. Entire species have evolved and gone extinct without our notice. The vast majority of what goes on in the universe, and even on our own Earth slips underneath the radar of human perception, little droplets in a vast ocean of history. And that’s a scary thought.

When people talk about a “God of the Gaps”, they’re usually referring to a type logical fallacy in which gaps in scientific knowledge are taken to be evidence or proof of God’s existence; i.e. there is a gap in understanding of some aspect of the natural world, therefore the cause must be supernatural. Seems rather disrespectful to an all-powerful creator God, no?

But when I hear that phrase, I think of something entirely different. My God of the Gaps is a God who watches over the gaps in history that no one else can watch. The God of the Gaps is present at the smallest miracles, from cell division to tiny chemical reactions, to the vast explosions and celestial movements of bodies on the other side of the universe where no human could possibly observe. He’s the one who hears the trees falling in the forest when no one is around to hear them, and he commits all these things to an infinite memory, catching everything missed by our limited human perception. And he’s the God who set all of these things in motion.

How comforting is it to know that nothing is ever really forgotten?

-Grand Duke Gumdropious III


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